President Trump’s approach to Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election have been smoothed down to an abstraction, a hand wave of doubt about actions for which there’s plenty of public evidence.
In an interview with Reuters on Monday, the president dropped just such a shrug about Russia’s efforts in the middle of a loosely connected thought. The investigation into whether anyone associated with his campaign aided the Russian effort, he said, “played right into the Russians’ — if it was Russia — they played right into the Russians’ hands.”
That’s the entirety of the quote that we have, making it hard to decipher any reason that Trump might have offered the “if it was Russia” interjection. It seems fair to assume, though, that it was simply spontaneous, a reversion to his long-standing practice of adding a question mark after every iteration of the word “Russia.”
This is a particularly odd usage though. It’s just there, in the middle of a sentence about an investigation into Russia and how that investigation plays into Russia’s hands. If it was Russia. If it wasn’t Russia, the investigation no longer plays into Russia’s hands? Or does it somehow play into some other country’s hands? In context, it doesn’t make sense.
Because Trump’s simply introducing it out of reflex. He’s talking about Russia and the Russia investigation somewhat obliquely, so his instinct is to add an “if it was even them” even if it doesn’t make sense.
One level deeper, things don’t get less odd. If it was Russia, Trump says — but what’s “it”?
Generally, that “it” refers to interference in the election, an it that’s bolstered by a broad range of public and private evidence. There was the initial evidence, even before the information stolen from the Democratic National Committee was released, that Russia was involved in the hacking of the party’s network. Once those files were released, the evidence became stronger. When emails stolen from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, were released, the message that apparently granted hackers access to his account was included among them. Months earlier, there was a reported effort by the Russians to access Clinton campaign emails; it quickly became obvious that the Russians were culpable in the Podesta hack.
At the same time, there was a push on social media to heighten political tensions in the United States. A few months after the election, Facebook and Twitter reported on thousands of accounts that had been used to sow misinformation and reinforce points of contention. On Facebook, ads promoting the accounts and certain posts were paid for with rubles. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigators obtained indictments against 25 Russian individuals and three companies on the strength of exhaustive outlines of how the hacking and social media efforts worked in practice.
Trump had even more-specific information about Russia’s role. On Jan. 6, 2017, two weeks before his inauguration, intelligence officials, including then-CIA Director John Brennan, traveled to Trump Tower to outline classified evidence pointing to Russia’s role, including, according to a report from the New York Times, “texts and emails from Russian military officers and information gleaned from a top-secret source close to Mr. Putin, who had described to the C.I.A. how the Kremlin decided to execute its campaign of hacking and disinformation.”
What’s more, the Russian efforts are ongoing. On Tuesday, hours after Trump’s interview with Reuters, Microsoft announced that it had shuttered websites that appeared to be designed to steal the log-in credentials for government officials and people associated with conservative think tanks critical of Trump. The company pointed to a hacking group within the Russian intelligence infrastructure as the culprit.
So which of these things is the “it” about which Trump is skeptical? All of it? Part of it? Does he differentiate between things that he accepts and things that he doesn’t?
Or, more importantly, is he actually skeptical at all or does he simply see political utility in pretending that he is? Confusing the issue about Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election would certainly reinforce his assertion that the probe into that interference and any overlap with his campaign is invalid. If someone accused of murder can prove that the victim is still alive, it undercuts the prosecution rather severely. In this case, though, the victim has already been publicly autopsied.
The last time Trump talked about Russia’s role in the 2016 election, he gave his strongest statement to date about the country’s culpability.
“You say you agree with U.S. intelligence that Russia meddled in the election in 2016,” CBS News’s Jeff Glor said to Trump shortly after the president’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.
“Yeah, and I’ve said that before, Jeff,” Trump replied. “I have said that numerous times before, and I would say that is true, yeah.”
At the time, Trump was trying to tamp down rampant frustration at his apparent failure to hold Putin to account during the meeting. Trump even retweeted a clip from Fox News purportedly showing all of the times he’d blamed Russia for the interference effort. That clip was not as exonerating as Trump seems to have believed for the simple reason that Trump has rarely offered concrete support for the idea that Russia was involved in the election.
Now, with that pressure lessened, Trump appears to again feel comfortable raising questions about whether Russia actually tried to influence the election. His comment to Reuters was the jerk of his leg after someone tapped his knee by saying “Russia.” There’s no reason to think that Trump will ever robustly and consistently accept that Russia tried to shift the results of the 2016 election in his direction — at least as long as the investigation into that interference is ongoing.